Gig review: Hiss Golden Messenger at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

“I hope this is your taking your mind off things,” MC Taylor deadpans some songs into tonight’s superlative set, keenly conscious of the near-capacity audience’s likely nerves during this general election night performance, which happens to take place next door to a polling station. “Focus your anxious minds on my depression.”

Hiss Golden Messenger. Picture: Graham Tolbert

He shouldn’t worry. Once the prolific, Durham, North Carolina based songwriter at the core of the loose Hiss Golden Messenger collective eases into an evening of self-styled ‘sad-ass folk songs’, anything beyond the cosy confines of the Brudenell is soon forgotten.

It’s not easy for a solo acoustic performer to compel a sizable audience to grant their undivided attention and truly listen. The countless shows Taylor has performed in the ten years since his first album under the Hiss Golden Messenger emerged in 2009 have paid off. Starting with a raw, pleading new song (performed a capella) and finishing just over 90 minutes later with the gritty, impassioned southern soul grit of Harder Rain, there is a powerful hypnotic pull to the material (which Taylor, seated next to a vase of red roses and dressed in a road-battered tan suit, picks seemingly on a whim from a battered notebook) and the impeccably assured manner it is delivered with.

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There is no shortage of musicians drawing inspiration and points of reference from the great American music tradition. With sumptuous new album Terms of Surrender providing another career highpoint to file alongside 2016’s Heart Like a Levee, Taylor’s starkly melodic songs, half wary hope, half weary resignation, their ethos best described as slivers of light forcing their way through near-impenetrable darkness, with family and community spirit providing a warming counterpoint to pitiless soul-searching and a sense of the world at large going wrong, increasingly pack enough gravitas, substance and depth to deserve, if not demand, filing alongside the giants that have provided the basic building blocks for Hiss Golden Messenger’s music.

Taylor’s frequently self-deprecating conversation provides a relaxed counterpoint to the hefty weight of the songs. Having analysed the famous photograph of a certain would-be PM pretending to play guitar on the wrong side of the capo, Taylor recounts an incident where his attempts to impress his daughter by performing Happy Birthday, Baby, a tune written for her fifth birthday, backfired as the song’s subject expressed embarrassment at having her song aired in public. The song – an uncommonly successful blend of self-flagellation and sweet sentiment – proves one of the highlights, suggesting Taylor’s closest family members are a somewhat more critical audience than tonight’s attentive, enthusiastically appreciative crowd.

Having visited Tate’s Blake exhibition during a previous tour stop in London, Taylor refers to the mysterious and murky fable of Call Him Daylight (off 2011 Poor Moon, another modern wide-screen Americana landmark) as a ‘William Blake song’. In most settings, such lofty points of comparison could be a cause for acute embarrassment. Tonight, you end up nodding your head in agreement.